PITTSFIELD -- With cold weather on the way and heated rhetoric coming from Washington, advocates for Berkshire County's low-income residents are pressing the state for help with fuel assistance.
The Berkshire Community Action Council is urging the local legislative delegation to press for an additional $20 million in the Legislature's proposed supplemental budget to temporarily cover a lack of funds statewide in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs. The money would help make up for LIHEAP cutbacks the past three years.
"If we had that, it could close the gap until the federal budget crisis is resolved," said BCAC Executive Director Deb Leonczyk.
With Congress unable to pass a federal budget agreement, the U.S.government has been partially shut down since Oct. 1. If the shutdown drags into next month, thousands of low-income Berkshire households face delays in receiving heating assistance.
More than 7,000 families and individuals in Berkshire County are in the fuel assistance program. BCAC administers LIHEAP to the county's 32 cities and towns.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing expects debate on the supplemental budget to begin this week on Beacon Hill, but he's unsure if it will be the funding vehicle for more fuel assistance. The Pittsfield Democrat said lawmakers may want to dip into the state's so-called "rainy day" fund for an emergency appropriation.
Nevertheless, Downing said he believes his colleagues on Beacon Hill see the issue as an "absolute priority."
"Heating assistance is a more immediate need, because it's threatened by the shutdown," he said.
Once a federal budget is approved, Leonczyk hopes the Berkshire's share of LIHEAP at least remains level-funded. Since federal fiscal 2010, the county's LIHEAP allotment has fallen from $7.1 million to $5.5 million in fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30. During the same period, BCAC went from 7,747 clients on LIHEAP to nearly 7,300 last winter.
"The drop in fuel assistance represents 436,000 gallons of fuel oil and 450 fewer households we were able to help," she said.
Statewide, Massachusetts received $133 million in LIHEAP funding in fiscal 2013, with the typical seasonal benefit ranging from $675 to $1,125, according to the Massachusetts Association of Community Action.
Nationally, LIHEAP funding was just under $3.5 billion in the last fiscal year, a 30 percent decline since 2010.
But even if President Obama and congressional Republicans were to come to terms immediately, MACA officials say it still could take several more weeks for funding formulas to be determined and money allocated to states.
Meanwhile, BCAC staff will continue to handle local LIHEAP requests for funding in anticipation the money will be available this winter. It expects to interview another 400 to 500 people seeking to be added to the LIHEAP list.
"We will take, process and certify applications from repeat clients, and, for now, make no more appointments to meet with potential new clients as we are booked into December," Leonczyk said.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233
Where to call
For LIHEAP recipients checking the status their application: 1-866-216-6200.
For all other inquiries: (413) 445-4503 during regular business hours.